Planet Savers: International Coalitions for the Environment

By Leino, Jessica | Harvard International Review, Summer 1998 | Go to article overview

Planet Savers: International Coalitions for the Environment


Leino, Jessica, Harvard International Review


In the past ten to 15 years, pollution and the possibility of resultant climate change have been recognized as a global dilemma. International environmental directives, however, cannot be effective in reaching their goals if they are created by only a small group of key players; a world coalition is necessary if the reduction of pollutants is to be realized.

The Montreal Protocol of 1987 represented the first truly international cooperative effort to solve a global environmental problem -- the degradation of the ozone layer. Its effectiveness is widely celebrated as the first major triumph in international environmental policy. Initially set up by a small coalition of developed countries; the group then expanded in later amendments. The issue of ozone depletion was addressed, but countries were not subject to any compliance monitoring agency. This leniency partly explains why the coalition expanded to include new members without causing much friction -- but also without bringing many results.

The 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro again saw widespread international agreement on the need to regulate potential environmental problems; 166 countries signed an agreement to adopt measures to limit climate change. However, only the developed nations actually pledged to meet a non-binding target by reducing their emissions of greenhouse gases by the year 2000. Some participant nations, including the United States, are failing to meet their goals, partly because of the non-binding nature of the agreement. However, the most significant failure of the agreement was the effective exclusion of developing countries. Including only developed countries implied that the future inclusion of developing nations was not significant. The result was an informal schism between the two groups that created an "us and them" mentality, hampering later attempts to initiate international environmental policy.

The 1992 UN Framework Convention on Climate Change produced the first legally binding document on the issue. Its signatories included both developed and developing nations. The details of the agreement, however, were left for later conferences. Thus, even though an effective coalition was established, no goals for common action were set. It remained for later conferences to commit to any real reductions and to hold the tenuous collection of countries together. The lesson from the convention was that detailed targets need to be set during negotiations because coalitions without specific purposes tend to disperse.

The United Nations Conference on Climate Change, which took place during the first ten days of December 1997, represents the most recent attempt at the international regulation of pollutants. The conference's goal was to adopt the first legally binding measure in which target figures were established to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases after 2000, when the Rio agreement expires. More than 150 countries were represented, but the division in position between developed and developing countries was marked.

There are valid economic and developmental reasons for the schism: countries at different stages in their development have traditionally had different emissions levels. This relationship is described by the Kuznets curve, a downward parabola giving emissions as a function of the development stage. The curve illustrates that the least developed countries emit low levels of pollutants simply because they have less industry. Developing countries pollute more as they build factories but do not yet have the most technologically advanced, environmentally sound pollution control devices. The Kuznets curve also shows that highly industrialized countries are again on the low side of pollution emissions; they have switched over to more efficient, expensive, and environment-friendly equipment. …

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